Friday, August 24, 2007
Back in the late eighties, Terry Tyo, publisher of Storyteller, asked himself why, whenever he wanted to read short stories, he was turning to American magazines and books to find them. And what he was finding was magazines and books devoted to only one type of story. Where was the variety? Although Canada has a reputation for great writers and a wide and literate audience, he couldn't find a Canadian magazine devoted to the short story that published mystery, or adventure, or even comedy. Thus was born the concept of Storyteller.
The first story I posted on this site, "The Coin", is a serious fantastic story about a street kid in Haiti.
"After Hours at the Black Hole" is more sardonic. You need not worry that anything like this will ever happen. Certainly not to you.
After Hours at the Black Hole
C. June Wolf
The thing about a black hole, Jude thought, was that once you threw something in there, that was it. No more coming back on you, no more problems, no more complications. It was good and tidy that way. Of course, there was always the chance, though he'd never known it to happen—that not everything that slipped across the event horizon remained uneventful for the rest of time—or timelessness, whatever.
And that was just what he was worrying about.
Working at all this crap for so long, Jude was nearly unfazeable. He had tugged so much across this vicinity of space he couldn't count the lightness of the years anymore, and had no idea how much of what he'd volleyed in that time he might at one, more ethical period of his life, have had regrets about. Business was business, after all, and a black hole trasher had work to do like anybody else. Never mind the delicacies of ethics or right. He would have thrown away his own mother (he liked to joke) if she hadn't thrown him away first, for a price, of course, and a handsome one. He had towed space dirt of every kind, from the rubble of abandoned colonies to the floating jetsam of war—living or very, very dead—to the entrails of planets that had somehow gotten tangled up in somebody's personal space. Any old thing you'd pay him for—he didn't mind. But today's cargo was a whole nother thing, and it worried him.
So, okay. Maybe those trusty black holes had swallowed everything so far without a burp. But he thought he'd spotted some energy shimmering where it ought not to last time he was circling Old Guzzler here, not just harmless vacuum fluctuations, but something else. It was nothing he could pin down instrumentally and he let it go and puttered back for his next "desperately urgent" something that needed to be lugged away.
Now here he was, moving in slowly, a handful of lightyears from Old G, with a long trailer of ruinous lives in his wake, and he was getting nervous.
He hadn't meant to ask the fellow what it was. But the guy was all white suit and glowing smile and intruded his philosophy into everything, so it was no surprise that he took Jude's grunt to mean, "Tell me in exhaustive detail what it is I am hauling out to wing down into Old Guzzler because I am just so interested in everything you think and do." Which the guy proceeded to do, to the increasing discomfort of one long-haul space trucker with no taste for the unliving, or the unlived or badly lived or—whatever.
"It's a procedure," the guy said all Prince of Lightness-y, spinning slowly in his chair with one white-clad leg propped regally across the other, "known as Soul-Stripping. Ha, ha, ha!"—his laugh sounded rehearsed—"We don't strip out the souls, of course, but strip off all the clutter and junk that makes them, and the lives they live, so untasteful and wicked and dull." That too-bright smile again. Bring down the eye-shades.
"People's lives, you see, are made up of a series of infinitely tiny and infinitely large decisions, endlessly made and yet barely attended to in the person's mind, and each has consequences in not only the outward but the inward parts of that individual's life. Eventually, the whole is so clogged up it isn't possible to make a single clear decision—because we are so mucked up with the crud of the years that we are no longer basing anything at all on the moment at hand, but all of it on the sticky goo that is now leading, if not in any way living, our lives.
"It's really very yukky—" that laugh again, like a soft solar drill, thutting against Jude's head. "You can see what I mean." Jude tried real hard not to seem to be listening. That was enough for Glow-Boy. He lunged on. "So we strip it off. Strip off the crud accrued one gungey layer at a time and fling it—thip! Thip! Thwap! into a thing we call the Black Hole."
Now this got Jude's attention. Eh?
Glowy smiled again. "Of course it isn't really a black hole. Our clients see this iccky substance stripped off of their thoughts, their memories, their impulses, their loves, and it is an incredible liberation. They lighten immeasurably. They straighten out strangled muscles, strangled lives. It is a wonderful thing to see, every time. But the goo is still in there, in the Black Hole, and there is nothing we have found to do with it, or to it, that either turns it into something useful, or gets it utterly and permanently beyond their reach.
"You see," he uncrossed his legs and leaned forward intensely, elbows digging into smooth knees, "there is a connection, a strand of energy so infinitesimally small that no one but us has even discovered it yet, that links each person to each bit of yik that we pull out of them. As long as the scrubbings are in the Black Hole, there is no real problem. There may be barely detectable tremours along the strands sometimes but no customer has felt it yet. They are able to go on and live their lives in wondrous new ways. But we are concerned. What would happen if one day--!poof!—one of those strands got strong enough that it smuckked its attendant yik back out from the Black Hole and splatted it right up against the poor unsuspecting customer again—maybe in the middle of a critical business deal, or in the process of making love? The consequences could be disastrous. We could be sued."
He sat back, looking vaguely real for the first time. This guy was really worried. Maybe he oughtta have a soul-stripping. But, he recovered. The smile: "And that is why, my friend, we have come to you. To put a truly toxic, galaxy-grade weapon out of commission for all time—our customers' combined millenia of bad and stupid living—and keep our company safely afloat and at the top of our wondrous game."
A creep. But in this limited sphere of criminalia, an honest one. Because of course, trucking anything at all—even energy, even bad decisions—that could logically be argued to be part of a living human being, was no, no, no on the black hole blacklist, and that was simply that.
Ugh. What a freak show. And here he was hauling it right up to the gaping mouth of Old Guzzler itself. Never mind Glowy, and never mind the planetloads of customers. What would happen to him if any of that spewed back out and caught him in the backside out in space? Better hope Old Guzzler doesn't take a leak on Jude today.
Here he goes then. Jude is circling in to the vicinity of Old Guzzler, tucked deep in the island universe, el Tetratis. The wash of stars in soft bright spirals spanned out unimaginably vast as he hurtled toward them, all but motionless in sensation, yet gaining on the galaxy at stunning speed. Clusters of young blue stars, reddish gatherings of stars in the making, and a vast density of white light in the centre, Tetratis was a beauty that even Jude could still appreciate. For a moment, the apprehension about his cargo took a backseat to that familiar feeling of wow. She sure was a stunner.
Somewhere in her centre, fuelling all that wonderful star production, was a supermassive black hole. No black hole trasher with the slightest grey matter still in the hold would ever try trucking into one of those. But over there, off to one side of the densest region of stars in Tetratis, was a nice little "binary twin" black hole he had shimmied up to more than once in his lifetime. And now, his first shipment of crappy lives was about to strike Old Guzzler right in the b.h. kisser.
Once he flung a cargo close enough Old G did the rest, sucking it in with all the power of the collapsed star it was. Jude snorted to himself at the old joke. They seem all-powerful when they're dazzling their audience as stars, but watch 'em collapse on themselves and they turn all sucky and whiney till the day they die. No matter how hard they suck, ain't nobody's gonna fawn over them anymore. But don't worry. Ignore them for a few billion years and eventually they'll go away.
And there it was. Jude slowed The Tug slightly as Old Guzzler came square into view. In amongst the spilled jewels of stars, next to its buddy star (Bootleg Pete) was a modest-size shiny black orb just hovering in nothing, and he was sailing right for it. Cargo forgotten, he threw himself into the routine. Couplers were set ready for detachment, target selected, The Tug's stabilizers and cargo placement rockets simultaneously fired. Like a harpoon destined for a blubbery side, the container was set in motion, gathering more speed as rockets continued to fire, sailing toward the black hole in fluid precision. Soon, the fuel would all be gone. But it wouldn't matter anymore. Crap and container, it would coast on until Old Guzzler was licking its shiny lips and giving a nice polite smile of thanks. Not that he would actually see that. The stuff would just kind of fade away, long after he'd left for the next run. But it was fun to imagine.
Jude's shoulders perceptibly relaxed. The crap of lives trailing behind him was gone.
He got ready to buzz away. He triple-checked the shot. Trajectory and velocity were good; he'd nailed it, right on course. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that this wasn't a place he really wanted to be anymore. He turned tail and got the hell out of there.
Jude was just flickering back into regular space when he felt the tug on The Tug. Everything in him set to tingling in alarm. It was just a gentle tug but he knew without a doubt where it had come from. He looked down at his controls, and if God had been in existence just then He would have been mighty surprised to see Jude pray.
Back at el Tetratis, things were getting pretty weird. In the vicinity of Guzzler and Bootleg Pete, they were even weirder than normal around the old event horizon. A container of foolish and freaky, angry and lost, desperate and astonishing, inspired and blessed, amazed and horrified, impulsive and long over-thought decisions was being stretched and splintered and set free, yet frozen on the horizon above Old Guzzler's mighty maw, and a billion dark strands of unbreakable filaments of energy were vibrating faster and faster even as everything else held heart-stoppingly still. Unbelievably, had anyone been there to watch and believe or not, they reached far across space through nonexistent wormholes, bisected garlands of strings, pierced planets and plunged through suns of monstrous size, unharmed, unaltered, unalterable. Old Guzzler was getting a massive ache in the gut.
Jude felt The Tug slowing frighteningly, felt the thrill of a billion cold wires of questing energy find their way into him, curling tight around each peptide and grain of self, anchoring in every breath and crackling synapse. Tighter and tighter to him they wrapped themselves, hitch-hikers, hijackers, little German children left to wander and die in the wicked woods by evil parents, clutching at the only thing that connects them still to the lives they left behind, and through Jude they shot forward, strangling him from the inside out, shot through space with unheard of urgency and plunged toward the earth, the colonies, the satellites, the stars, everywhere in the hundred light year radius that was Soul Strip territory. And plunged on through to the ones who'd tried to rid themselves of them.
Old Guzzler heaved. The sucker who wouldn't exhale, the drinker who never puked, the swallower of all heaved hell-bent for mercy and out they spewed. Everything it had ever gulped came, too. Radiation, planets, ships, time. Blowing out like a firehose on speed, splattering the island universe, and through it, and beyond. With them went everything that Guzzler was, radiating off every quantum of its mass, till the one who had once dramatically collapsed now fizzled suddenly out, and Old Pete had no one left to slurp up all his booty.
But Old Pete beamed numbly on, and el Tetratis continued, unimpressed, in its making and extinguishing of stars.
Glowy Boy looked up from his desk, a strange sensation entering his consciousness. It was the pop of a billion accounts, he was sure. He frowned terribly, jerking his head around, jumping up to react but having nowhere, nowhere to go. Inside, he felt the downward slide into confusion, the bliss-less collision of a million furious thoughts, discarded on the road in a dirty little cardboard box, come back home after all this travelling, not run over, not dead, not going away, no how. And mightily pissed off.
He slumped into his chair again, and sobbed.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
I just read the novel Definitely Maybe by the Soviet SF authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. (See also.) I will suppress my urge to gush and describe and just say, if you like thoughtful, beautifully written, seedy and itchy prose, this is a very worthwhile read.
Maybe a snippet? Taken at random, cause I gotta get to bed:
Malianov was flabberghasted. He had known Val Weingarten for twenty-five years and Weingartedn had never expressed an iota of interest in Malianov's work. Weingarten had never been interested in anything but Weingarten himself with the exception of two mysterious objects: the 1934 two-penny and the "consul's half-ruble," which was not a half-ruble at all but some special postage stamp. The bum has nothing to do, Malianov decided. Just killing time. Or maybe he needs a roof over his head, and he's just building up to the question?
"What am I working on?" he asked with gleeful malice. "I can tell you in great detail if you like. You'll be fascinated by it all, I'm sure, being a biologist and all. Yesterday morning I finally broke through. It turns out that in the most general assumptions regarding the potential function, my equations of motion have one more integral besides the integral of energy and the integrals of momenta. If the equations of motion are given in vector form and then the Hartwig transformation is applied, then the integration is performed for the entire volume, and the whole problem is reduced to integro-differential equations of the Kolmogorov-Feller type."
To his vast amazement, Weingarten was not interrupting him. For a second, Malianov thought that they had been disconnected.
"Are you listening to me?"
"Yes, very attentively."
"Perhaps you even understand what I'm saying?"
"I'm getting some of it," Weingarten said heartily. Malianov suddenly realized how strange his voice was. He was frightened by it.
"Val, is something wrong?"
"What do you mean?" Weingarten asked, stalling.
"What do I mean? With you, of course! You sound a little funny. Can't you talk right now?"
"No, no, pal. That's nonsense. I'm all right. It's just the heat. Do you know the one about the two roosters?"
Well, that gives the slightest taste of a few of the elements of this story. It's a wonderful example of writing in which essentially nothing happens but the reader is pulled marvellously along to a satisfying and unusual ending. I found myself tapping tables in anticipation of getting back to Definitely Maybe whenever life got in the way.
Definitely Maybe, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis, Introduction by Theodore Sturgeon. Collier Books, NY NY, 1978. Published in Russian as За миллиард лет до конца света in 1977.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Well, I think I've held off long enough. Here is "The Coin", published in Tesseracts 9, New Canadian Speculative Fiction, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Geoff Ryman. (This is a slightly revised version.)
The first short story I had written in years, "The Coin" dropped out of my pocket while I sat with Rhea Rose in the hotel lobby at VCon in 2003. It arose in homage to a little boy I had befriended in Haiti not so long before.
Likner walked away from the girl who had brought the message from his mother. They hadn't talked long, but she had carefully taken the red cuvette of mangoes from her head and
given him two, then lifted the heavy load back onto the curl of cloth that rested on her braided hair.
The message said that his baby sister had died. He had seen her only once—she’d been so tiny. She had lived with their mother and Likner's other sisters on the steep mountainside
on the road to Vertierres. It might be a good idea, he thought, to visit his mother soon. Maybe he could find a coconut for her. But the idea made him feel leaden. He pushed it out of his mind, and headed for the boulevard, nipping the top of the first mango and peeling it with his teeth.
Likner followed the narrow street to the boulevard by the sea where the sun, hot since rising, climbed above the barely moving water of the bay. Here the sea bumped gently against a long concrete wall instead of washing over a beach, and the road that followed the wall was surprisingly smooth. The occasional rusted taxis and big 4x4s could race on it unhindered by potholes and cracks, by market stalls or crowds of people.
He started off toward downtown. His gaze shifted from the sea and low mountains to the tiny makeshift fishing boats, and back to the road he travelled. Here and there, small groups of people sat on broken benches or dangled their legs over the seawall, talking low among themselves. On the other side of the road were the houses of the people who owned the 4x4s. He scanned the tall palms in their yards for their great pale fruit.
He passed a littered beach, the empty tourist market, and then the docks. As he came abreast with a pair of rusted freighters standing in the oily water of the bay, he could see a little clutch of boys down the street by the bakery. He had expected to find them there. It was nearly Karnaval and they were dressing up as zenglendoes to “rob" the patrons at
At seven, Likner was the youngest of these boys living on the streets of Okap, but he had been with them for more than a year and they accepted him without question. Like him, they wore shorts and dirty T-shirts that hung like dresses, and nothing on their feet. But they had also smeared their skin with motor oil, and cobbled together fake knives and guns.
In other places in the city, grown men dressed as soldiers walked with the musicians who carried the noisy homemade instruments of the rara band. They were stopping traffic at busy corners and demanding coins to let the vehicles pass. The boys knew the methods well. They crowded around a handful of blans who were coming out of the door, those wealthy foreigners come to save their souls and tell them how to live.
Likner hung back watching as the others brandished their weapons menacingly, smiling beneath the ferocity of their scowls. Two missionaries brushed past them with wry grins and flip remarks in Creole. A third, a pale white woman, followed. The boys closed ranks around her and held out oily hands. She shook her head and said something incomprehensible that wasn’t Creole, didn’t sound like French, might have been English. Bouki grinned and made as if to smear her clothes with oil if she didn’t hand something over. She winked and moved forward. They let her by.
The blan was sitting on the low wall beside the sea. The water made impatient little pushes at the concrete, urging bits of garbage back toward the shore. Down the block the beach rose up from the silky ocean waters. It was littered with plastic bags and old, rough-made chairs, well-stripped car frames and a blend of mango pits, coconut husks, and shreds of sugar cane fibre that gave off all together a thick dank smell of rot. Bouki and Benji were already with the blan, working her. Likner walked up slowly. She was shaking her head. Turning her pockets inside out. Benji snorted. Sure she had no money. His closed face locked and he turned away. Bouki shrugged and moved off, unconcerned.
He grinned at Likner and bent to scoop a little rock. Knowing Bouki’s games, Likner ducked as it sailed toward him, grabbed a bigger one and rushed forward for a revenge throw. The woman grabbed his wrist as he went hurtling by. Bouki smacked him hard and skipped away. The woman held Likner until his struggling ceased, then set him down and waited. He turned and stared.
Likner never really expected much. Half the time he didn't even ask for money. He never pushed the blans like the other boys. He didn't dream someone would take him home, to
Yesterday he'd thought that she was white-blonde, with gem-blue eyes and skin like shaved ice. Today he saw her hair was a light brown, and the blue eyes were tinged with green. She looked at him for a long time, steadily. He decided to try.
"Ba m senk goud," he told her. She cocked her head. "Give me one dolla," he said in English. She understood.
Bouki and Benji were gone. She reached into her pocket, one she had turned inside out earlier, and pulled out a large, dull coin. She put it in his hand, closed his fingers around it, looked into his eyes. She pointed to the coin, pointed to his pocket, closed her fist. "Don't lose it," she was telling him. Then she stood up, gave him a little pinch on the nose, and walked away.
He stared at the coin, empty of feeling. It wasn't Haitian. Or American. He squinted. He couldn't read, but he knew them all. It wasn't Canadian or Belgian or French. He could barely make out the shape of a woman—an American, he thought, by her face and hair—and on the other side … perhaps a fish.
He heard a shout and looked in the direction she had gone. Ezo and Bouki and Ti Patrik, sparring and yelling as they wandered up the street. The blan was nowhere to be seen.
The coin was a disappointment. He looked at it numbly. He surprised himself with what he did next, without even thinking. He tossed it over the wall and into the muttering sea. The water swallowed it and it left his thoughts. Bending, he scooped up a nicely weighted stone. Straightened and aimed at Bouki's shaved head.
Likner sat on the darkened stoop across from the Merci Jesu Bar and Grill. People stood lined up waiting for manyòk juice and white bread with spicy peanut butter. A couple of the boys stood by the doorway, available for handouts. Likner felt a presence at his elbow and turned. It was the blan. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face in a tight bun. How could he not have noticed before that she was a grimèl? Though her skin was not dark, the Haitian features were unmistakeable. She smiled at him, as if he had been very naughty. She held out the coin.
"Pa perdi li," she said in Creole. Don't lose it. She nodded sharply and he stuffed it in his pocket without a word. One of the boys noticed her there and came over to talk. She winked at Likner, smiled at him, and walked away listening to the other boy.
That night, when Likner was alone, he looked at the coin again. The woman's features were a little clearer. She had her eyes raised and her hands as well, her head twisted a little to one side, as if she was dancing. He turned it over. The fish was very long. It arced as though diving into the sea.
He walked along the boulevard, considering. What could he buy with this? Nothing. What could he trade it for? Not much. His business sense said to trade it. His gut said to hell with it. To hell with the big shot blans and their money. To hell with their promises. He took it out again, glanced up the long, dark street. Three men laughed and talked loudly a few steps away. One lone man leaned against the seawall half a block in front of him. The man filled up his lungs and sang horridly into the gentle breeze that came in off the sea. Likner thought of offering him the coin. But no. Instead, he turned to the sea again. He aimed it far out in the water, where it was deep, where the woman would not see it and fetch it back. And he threw it in.
Likner woke to the sound of gentle breathing. He lay on the sidewalk in a little cluster of boys. Jean Denis' long arm was resting on his face. The moon had left the sky. He sat up, let his legs dangle over the wall that faced the water, and stuffed his hands into his pockets. Something hard was in there. He pulled it out. The coin. Only now the woman was changed. He stiffened. She was the mambo dancing before they poisoned the owners and burned the plantations and started the revolution. He knew that it was her. He turned it over and there was La Sirene, rising in all her scaled majesty from her element, the sea.
Don't lose it, she had said. It wasn't a Visa. It wasn't a schoolbag. It wasn't even a hunk of bread. But anyone would know it was a wanga, though whose, or why he had it, or what magic it was meant to do, he didn't know. He leapt up and hurled it as far, as far as it would go and turned to race away from the sea.
He stopped. For a second he thought the moon had fallen from the sky and hovered in front of his face. He blinked. It was her, holding the coin up in her dark brown hand, a little smile playing on her face. Her black hair stood stiffly out on every side.
"It was an orphanage," she said in perfect Creole. Where was she getting these words? "With a school and uniforms and a library that actually has books." He stepped to one side, hoping to get around her. "It was a boat. Forty people and high seas and nothing to eat, nothing to drink. Do you think they'll reach
"Good," she said. She pinned him down. Some of the other boys were starting to rouse. The ocean slapped the wall and spattered them with spray. "It was a marine. He strafed the fighters in the hills and made their families build the roads. He killed their pigs." Her teeth clicked together as she sank against the curb, her black fingers tight around him still. "It was an houngan, a strong one. What do you think an houngan can do? Draw vevers of flour on the dirt for the spirits and dance possessed all night? Anything else? Can he do anything? Is he worshipping devils like the missionaries say? Is he always drunk? "
Her legs twined around each other and fused into a long, scaled tail. She released his arm and bellied over the waking boys, paused for a second on the wall and blinked great green eyes at him. "It was a poet. He sketched his words in Creole, dipped his pen in his blood, wrote with the loops of his intestines. Did you hear him scream? Did you hear him laugh with joy?
"It was a wish, Likner. Would you like to learn to see with eyes like mine? Would you like to find your own?" She blinked her great green eyes at him. So green, they were nearly coal. "It was a dream. Do you dream, Likner? Would you like to give that up?"
She dove over the side and disappeared in the inky water with a hearty splash. “Come on," he heard in his mind. "Follow and see. See if your arm can bend this wave."
One by one, the boys sat up stiffly, looking confusedly around them. Likner watched the water shifting where she had disappeared, heard it tapping at the wall. Tentatively, he put his hand back in his pocket. Met something small, round, hard. Just for now, he decided not to look.
Pen nan boutèy, diven nan panye
Bread in the bottle, wine in the basket
copyright June 2005